Palm Beach County considers vote to override state-ordered tax cut
By Josh Hafenbrack
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
June 12, 2007
Waiting on a major tax cut from Tallahassee? Not so fast -- it'll have to get past the County Commission first.
Palm Beach County leaders for the first time on Monday raised the possibility of voting to override part of the Legislature's expected property tax cut package.
Faced with digging at least $14 million deeper into a 2008 budget that's already been trimmed 7 percent, County Administrator Bob Weisman said he's working to put together a budget that demonstrates the county has made significant cuts, so later this summer commissioners can "justify to the public an override vote."
The proposed legislation in Tallahassee would require the county to roll back spending at least 9 percent over spending levels approved a year ago, but give commissioners an option to override the cap and avoid deeper cuts with five votes on the seven-member commission.
Commissioner Burt Aaronson endorsed the idea, saying it would allow the county to give a $55 million budget increase to the sheriff and avoid cuts to the fire department without gutting other government operations.
"That's a great option," he said. "The citizens here want us to give them certain services."
State Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton, said Monday the purpose of the proposed legislation isn't to prohibit local governments from raising revenue, thus the override provision. But he added: "We're making it much more difficult to raise taxes on the people. There's going to be political consequences for it, for overriding the cap."
On the eve of the property tax special session, commissioners Monday learned they would have to cut at least an additional $14 million from their projected $640 million in property tax collections. The extra cuts could be deeper, as high as $44 million, depending on which figures legislators use.
And that would only be the start. A year from now, commissioners would have to slice another $105 million if legislators and voters approve a plan to do away with the Save Our Homes amendment and replace it with an expanded homestead exemption. The plan would let homeowners exempt 75 percent of the first $200,000 in their home's value, and save 15 percent on the next $300,000.
"This first year's budget is going to be arranging the chairs on the Titanic, but we're not going to be the Titanic for long," said Commissioner Jeff Koons. "We're going to a third-rate steamer in a couple years."
County Commissioner Mary McCarty came forward with her own budget plan at Monday's meeting, calling for the county to cut every department and program equally, by the 9 percent mandated in the legislative rollback. This contrasts slightly with Weisman's budget blueprint, which cuts costs across the board but eliminates certain programs outright in order to save high-priority areas, such as the sheriff's office.
"If people don't like that percentage cut, they need to take it up with the people's governor and their legislative representatives," McCarty said. "We're doing what we're being told."
McCarty said the county needs to try to reopen collective bargaining contracts with unionized blue-collar workers, police officers and firefighters. Reducing raises and benefits would allow the county to avoid layoffs, she said.
Aaronson agreed, urging Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to try to get sheriff's deputies to give up their lucrative union contract and freeze pay for two years.
Bradshaw told commissioners not to count on union concessions.
"I haven't seen one union yet that comes in to bargain down benefits for their membership," he said.
Amid talk of cuts, commissioners also moved to save one of their pet programs: the $1.2 million given to each commissioner for projects in their districts. Weisman had proposed eliminating the much-criticized program -- at an $8.4 million savings -- but McCarty and Commission Chairman Addie Greene said they wanted to keep the money.